Conducting Qualitative Research on Sensitive Topics: Challenges and Solutions

Research on sensitive subjects such as illegal activities, drug use, and sexual topics can pose some challenges for evaluators. These topics may result in unintended consequences, such as difficult emotions or potential legal ramifications for those involved. At Magnolia Consulting, we have conducted multiple qualitative studies on the highly sensitive topic of educator sexual misconduct, which is the abuse of students by school personnel. Based on our experience, we have identified three tasks that often present challenges during the research process: (a) recruitment, (b) sample selection, and (c) qualitative data collection through focus groups and interviews. Below, we outline these three challenges, along with solutions we employ.

Recruitment

  • Challenge: While recruitment can be challenging for any study, recruiting participants for a sensitive-topic study faces additional hurdles. The topic may trigger difficult or painful emotional responses from participants who have a personal connection to the subject, which may discourage participation. Additionally, participants may be afraid to discuss or disclose illegal behavior unless their confidentiality is ensured.
  • Solution: To encourage participation in the study, researchers may want to emphasize the value of others learning from the findings. Study participants should also be made aware of how the research findings will be used to advance knowledge in the field. Additionally, when first reaching out to potential participants, direct oral communication (via phone or in person) is key. Once potential participants have been identified, it is important for researchers to take proper steps to ensure confidentiality in the study to alleviate legal concerns of disclosing behaviors or knowledge.

Sample Selection

  • Challenge: Many sensitive-topic studies start with a limited number of known possible participants, which is further decreased by potential participants not meeting study sample parameters. In addition, a number of eligible participants may not wish to engage in the research study. This selection bias may mean that the results of the study are not generalizable.
  • Solution: If possible, researchers need to identify a very large initial set of potential participants. In order to minimize selection bias among eligible participants, researchers should work to remove barriers and increase incentives for participation. Again, ensuring confidentiality is essential.

Qualitative Data Collection

  • Challenge: Some participants in sensitive-topic studies may not feel comfortable being open with researchers. Hesitation to share perspectives can negatively impact the quality of the data collected.
  • Solution: Establishing rapport with study participants before data collection is an important step in gaining trust. One method of doing so is to hold an in-person orientation with key participants. This allows for face-to-face meeting time, presentation of background information, and questions from participants. Another option is to conduct a pilot of the protocols, which helps researchers adjust questions and make modifications to increase the comfort and openness of participants.

Despite the various barriers facing a researcher embarking on sensitive-topic research, it is possible to work through these challenges by using a solution-focused approach.